Emasculation of Entertainment: In the Heart of the Sea (Ron Howard, 2015)

With the propping up of the movie industry on massively over-funded summer blockbuster films, Hollywood pushes itself further into the brink of collapse.  Disney’s string of hugely successful action movies, including the MCU and Star Wars, in addition to their animated endeavors, seem to be setting the tone for an industry lacking in anything resembling a creative drive.  What happened to that drive?  Did Hollywood lose its balls sometime in the 1980s?  Is the development of the PG-13 rating to blame?  Is the misplaced hope that huge movies will reap huger successes misdirecting studios to invest too heavily in tent pole franchises instead of diversifying and increasing their output with smaller but more numerous films?  I can’t claim to answer any of these questions.  All I can say is that Hollywood has no teeth left at all, and Ron Howard’s 2015 castrated somnambulant of a film In the Heart of the Sea really drives that home.

Billed as the remarkable true story that inspired the writing of Herman Melville’s landmark novel Moby-Dick, Howard’s film lives up to neither the expectation of matching the brilliance of the classic American staple nor the excitement of the adventure it is supposed to be based on.  The bland characters, dull action, poor visuals, and trite, predictable melodrama would all be bad enough, but the film points toward an even more blandly sinister element of today’s entertainment culture: its distinct lack of teeth.  I’ll get to that later.

To start with, there isn’t a whole lot that In the Heart of the Sea has to offer audiences.  Despite the rich potential of the setting, the premise, and the sense of adventure it all seems to promise, the action fails to effectively translate from vision to visuals.  The CGI effects of whales and tumultuous seas look poorly rendered and even dated, despite the film having come out less than a year ago.  And worse, the boat fails to look lifelike as well—most of the sets seem to have been built piecemeal without attention to the broader plan, and any full shot of the boat looks completely computer generated.  The fire effects, the ship-sinking chaos, and just about everything shot underwater looks completely fake and unassuming.

But the distinct lack of visual realism aside, the movie’s chief problem is its utter dullness.  Hazy camera pans and extreme close-ups of actors making amusingly pained faces only do so much to explore the drama of survival—but that’s all there is to the movie: a shallow effort to depict even shallower and well-rehearsed conflicts.  The movie moves too quickly to cover the utter desperation of the characters in any meaningful sense, opting to brush over long periods of despair and agony punctuated by brief moments of destruction, violence, or abominable acts like cannibalism.  While this may sound like the general makings of any darkly dramatic movie, In the Heart of the Sea never explores or even depicts these things with anything more than either a passing reference or a maudlin and overacted hammy narration.

The story begins with a young Herman Melville seeking out the story of the sunk whaleship Essex from one Thomas Nickerson.  Negligent to tell the tale, he eventually concedes and the bulk of the movie is then told in flashback.  Interspersed throughout are narrative breaks featuring the drama between Melville and Nickerson, or Nickerson and his wife, but these narrative breaks exist only so the story can spoon feed melodramatic commentaries on things like a character’s doubt or self-confidence.  The result is a stale attempt to bleed a stone, except the melodrama is so substance-less that it really comes across dishonestly.

As the Essex encounters troubles finding whales, the captain ends up listening to the story of a shipwrecked Spaniard at a foreign port who speaks of spawning waters far removed from land, but also warns them of a dangerous whale that wrecked his own vessel.  Both the captain of the ship and the first mate Chase decide to investigate his claims and, despite the doubts of the crew, finally stumble upon the spawning waters.  While the whaling boats are out to take their prey, the enormous white whale attacks the Essex, destroying it.  The rest of the film consists of the survivors narrowly avoiding death by exposure, starvation, dehydration, and additional whale attacks for the remainder of the voyage.

Yes, additional whale attacks.

So the white whale’s destruction of the Essex wasn’t enough.  The monster hunts them across the sea, haunts them while they’re already on the edge of death, and even bides its time while they try to survive on an empty island.  Chase, for his part, fashions a makeshift harpoon from what supplies were available on that island, readying himself in case another encounter comes—which it does.  The whale destroys one of the surviving boats, and is about to destroy the second, when our presumptive hero raises his harpoon and looks the whale directly in the eye, and… has a heart-to-heart experience with the animal.  Then he lowers his harpoon.  Then the whale departs.

This type of stuff is just so retarded that I can’t even make it up.

So the whole film builds up to this confrontation.  The whale as destroyed their boat, destroyed their rafts, haunted them across leagues of ocean, returned to haunt them more after their brief stint on an empty island—presumably all in defense of whatever passes for its family—only to suddenly have a change of heart from villainy to apathy.  The whale could have massacred them, but it somehow chose not to.  Why?  None of it makes any sense, unless you’re going to blindly and gullibly subscribe to the notion that hey my dude, whales are people too, y’know?  This movie is a fucking joke.

The worst part of it is how utterly transparent the motives of the film are.  On one hand, it seeks to serve as a sort of prequel to Moby-Dick—which for anyone with half a brain knows needs no prequel—while simultaneously cashing in on the ‘based on true events’ craze.  But the driving motivation for filming it seems even simpler than that: Moby-Dick, with all of its high seas adventuring, madness, chaos, and excitement makes for one of the best adventure stories ever told, so it’s somewhat expected that an ambitious director would be interested in shooting an effects-heavy blockbuster based on it.  The problem with the novel, however, is how poorly it has aged when stood alongside the contemporary popular climate of animal rights activists, anti-whaling sentiment, environmentalism, and the culture’s general disdain for manliness.  Ahab’s maniacal pursuit of the whale and his broodings, as well as Starbuck’s realism, Stubb’s amiableness, and Flask’s general petulance all exude varying forms of adventuresome masculinity that has become alien in today’s narrative market.

And I don’t think it’s because audiences have a hard time identifying with any of these things, really. I think it’s just that many filmmakers are uncomfortable depicting them because of either conflicting agendas or the filmmakers themselves simply have no frame of reference to adequately interpret the motivations of such characters.  Manliness is not something in high demand among Hollywood actors; physique and charm certainly are, but the sort of manliness one expects from a hardened father, a rough-and-tumble older brother, the tough mentor, etc. are all products of antiquated storytelling that modern sensibilities try to tell us are harmful manifestations of patriarchal oppression.  Not that such claims make any sense, mind you.  These sorts of people still certainly exist, and most audiences still want their men to be men and their women to be women–especially in dirty grit-filled adventure stories.  But when something like In the Heart of the Sea comes out, a movie filled with what should have been masculine-rich environment, the filmmakers stumble over themselves trying to depict something they don’t even seem to understand themselves.  The result is a form of manliness that really just looks like famous people giving each other high-fives and trying to be good guys, soullessly missing the essence of what it means to be good men.  Or you just get unabashed homoeroticism, though fortunately there wasn’t any of that in this particular crapshoot of a movie.

Whatever the reasoning, the decision not to adapt Moby-Dick weighs heavier on this film than anything the film actually depicts or portrays.  Audiences are familiar enough with Melville’s classic to know that it’s about a white whale sinking a ship, killing most of its hardy crew, and the manic pursuit of it by the ship’s slightly crazy captain.  In the Heart of the Sea possesses enough elements to fit the bill, even if some reworking is required to get it into place.  The film seeks to ride the classic’s coattails; it wants the adventure promised by the name but it doesn’t want to look into the substance of the world, the soul of Man, and the gaze of madness like the novel does.  Even as it tries to explore things like cannibalism, the dramatic depiction comes across as hackneyed actors hamming it up for the screen instead of tortured sailors consuming to their own to survive.

Fortunately, this shitheap of a film made just under its budget at the box office, resulting in something of a bomb.  I’d like to say that it’s a sign of the market that audiences aren’t buying this type of retarded sappy maudlin bullshit, but given the success of the Marvel films and other established franchises that just turn out assembly line drivel nearly indistinguishable from this, I can’t really assert such a claim in good faith.  This movie probably bombed not because it actually sucked, but rather because of its poor timing.  It had poor marketing, bad trailers, and worse, it came out in the same season as both the final Hunger Games movie as well as Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens.  And to make matters worse, films that take place on the high seas almost never do well in the box office—the only exceptions in the last decade or so seem to have been the well-entrenched Pirates of the Caribbean  movies, and being Disney ventures, the printing press behind those films is pretty much guaranteed to yield Benjamins.

In the Heart of the Sea is garbage.  I’m glad it bombed.

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